“When you turn the ball over and can’t protect the way you need to it’s going to be tough to win. ” - Kirk Ferentz
In back-to-back games Iowa has struggled to put together consistent drives and create nearly any points. Last week it was four interceptions, four sacks allowed, and struggles in pass defense. This week it was three turnovers (all deep in Iowa territory), and six sacks. That is even a thankful number because there should be a 7th when Petras miraculously escaped a sack where a defender stopped because he didn’t want to get one of those penalties on a clear shot on a quarterback. Iowa’s defense rose to the challenge, but were routinely put into impossible situations.
Iowa’s rushing attack has be an issue this season in most games. Through the first few games, that could be explained by so many carries being with a significant lead and teams knowing Iowa was trying to run out the clock. In more recent games, that has not been the case.
Some occasions are a simple number game. When Iowa is bringing heavy personnel packages, defenses are countering with even heavier box formations. When you have seven blockers for eight box defenders it isn’t going to end well for the offense very often.
In a lot of other occasions initial surges by the Iowa offensive line are quickly closing by defensive backs attacking the line of scrimmage from deep sets.
With Iowa going 11 personnel, Wisconsin lightens the box to just six defenders. The boundary safety lines up ten yards back and the field safety set up nearly 15 yards downfield. Iowa is able to get a nice push in the middle and left side leading to a great cutback lane for Goodson. As he makes the read to the backside hole, the safety is sprinting downhill and able to close the gap for no gain. One major issue is Iowa consistently getting into 2nd and 10+ situations.
In the 1st quarter it was a nearly identical situation with the boundary safety immediately closing what looks like a promising rush lane. While it looks like it’s a fine line between a big play and no gain, there have been these situations all year and Iowa continues to end up with the latter. With Iowa’s issues in the pass game, those safeties can tee off on Iowa’s run game.
When Wisconsin was far less concerned with Iowa’s run game due to time and score, Iowa was able to turn one of those runs into a nice gain because both safeties stayed with their deep responsibilites. Note that this is an 8-man box against 22 personnel so it is possible for Iowa to have success in power formations and heavy defensive sets. The fullback and initial action going to the boundary allows Goodson a clean cutback lane off great blocks from Colby, Plumb, and LaPorta. The linebackers flow with the fullback but having both safeties maintaining deep positioning and allow Goodson to get to the second level.
What can Iowa do to get the run game to a respectable position? There are no immediate changes that will totally fix this offense, but I do believe a few small changes increase the chances for this offense to move the ball with more consistency on the ground.
Too often the location of Iowa’s quarterback is predicting the play call. Iowa needs to get their shotgun rush game going by doing the simplest thing...calling a run from shotgun. Part of it is simply to break tendencies, but the other part is that give the defense a different look at Iowa’s formations and alignments. Iowa shows here that you can be in shotgun and still use a power formation. It isn’t a huge play, but Iowa would take 4-5 yard gains on the ground all day. The other small note here is despite going with two tight ends Iowa has its top two deep threats in Keagan Johnson and Charlie Jones as the receivers that might key the defense to a possible downfield play.
In two of the early clips, we saw the line getting decent push with Iowa in 11 personnel only to have a safety ruin the play. I do think going with more three receiver sets is a good thing moving forward can help due to defenses have to stretch more horizontally in those formations.
Wisconsin is forced into a 6-man box but both linebackers are on a run blitz assignment. Iowa’s offensive line does a great job absorbing the blitzes and giving Goodson a chance to get off tackle. We see true freshman right guard Connor Colby’s athletic ability shines here as he is able to get a piece of his defensive line responsibility before getting just enough of the blitzing linebacker as well. On the left side, Kyler Schott looks like he is rounding back into his expected form as he connects on his reach block before flipping his hips to seal the defensive tackle to the inside.
But in correcting fashion for the way the last two games have gone, what starts as a promising play ends quickly as Petras and Goodson clip feet and cause Goodson to lose his balance at the line of scrimmage. Despite that, it shows how defenses will sometimes react with Iowa going with more receivers and open opportunities for Iowa to get the run game back on track.
In my most reoccurring theme, please give us more jet motion. It is another way to hold linebackers and safeties eyes and keep them from attacking the line of scrimmage so quickly. Iowa’s tackles and tight ends have struggled at times holding off backside pursuit and this is a chance to make their life a little easier. This doesn’t result in a splash play, but getting more consistent 4+ yard carries will go a long ways for this offense.
Opposing defenders making plays
Sometimes the opposing team has special players that make a play even when the offense has dialed up a quality play. Iowa calls a first down screen to Goodson that I really liked. First of all, it breaks tendency that nearly all screen calls have been on 3rd and long. The play also has jet motion and play action; two things I’d like to see incorporated with more frequency. In the end, All-American Leo Chanel crushes the play on a blitz and disrupts everything Iowa is trying to accomplish. This is a play that Iowa will either score on or get a big gain on later this season if they come back to it.
Pass Fail Game
Iowa’s pass game has become essentially become a fail game. Petras has his obvious struggles with pressure, and unfortunately the line has been giving up consistent pressure in the biggest games of the year. It needs to be said that Wisconsin does a tremendous job of manufacturing pressure by dropping guys who appear to be rushers pre snap. This leaves lineman with no one to block while two blockers on the opposite side might be tasked with two or three rushers. Even when Iowa is in position for 1v1 pass sets, the defenders are winning too many of those battles, especially on the perimeter.
When given time, Petras is capable to deliver on target and on time. There are situations where he can hit small windows and make hash-to-hash throws that stretch defenses thin horizontally.
Moving up the depth chart
To combat Wisconsin’s pressure, Iowa went back to a play that worked well the previous week. While most of Iowa’s receivers are best suited for the slot, Keagan Johnson has the size and speed to do well on the outside. With Wisconsin’s press coverage on the perimeter and the linebackers propensity for moving forward to the line of scrimmage, Iowa looked to attack the slant route more than it had over the last few years. Look for more of this the rest of the season.
Iowa wanted to take a deep shot to Johnson on a slant-and-go (sluggo) but Wisconsin’s pressure kept Petras from being able to get the pass off. It is a concept Iowa needs to keep going to in an effort to keep those safeties on their toes and have them respect Iowa pushing the ball downfield. Johnson has quickly become Iowa’s top choice downfield.
Iowa has A LOT of issues offensively, but there are possible solutions out there to at least give them a chance. The issues on the perimeter of the line combined with injuries to two of the experienced interior players have made offensive line play nearly as discussed as the quarterback position.